March 21, 2017 5:23 am JST

Abe, Merkel take stand against protectionism

The two leaders aim to wrap up an economic partnership agreement soon

RIEKO MIKI and RYOHEI YASOSHIMA, Nikkei staff writers

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, speaks to reporters with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after their March 20 summit in Hannover, Germany. © AP

HANNOVER, Germany -- The Japanese and German leaders doubled down on their support for free trade at a summit here Monday as they struggled to stem the rising tide of protectionism fueled by American policy under President Donald Trump.

In the face of an inward-looking U.S. and the British vote to leave the European Union, the meeting took on a different tone from the past 13 meetings between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As the two longest-serving incumbent leaders in the Group of Seven economies, they hold the key to uniting the bloc and the larger Group of 20.

Economic matters were their biggest focus. Trump, under his "America first" doctrine, is taking a step back from free trade. He decided to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, planning instead to strike bilateral trade deals with Japan and other countries. Trump is also looking to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The free trade mechanisms advanced by the G-7 and the G-20 could become a dead letter if the U.S. continues down its protectionist path. At the behest of the U.S., G-20 finance ministers and central bankers dropped their usual promise to resist "all forms of protectionism" in a statement Saturday after their latest meeting.

On Monday, Abe and Merkel shared their concern over the rise of protectionism. "Japan and Europe must work with the U.S. and raise high the flag of free trade," the Japanese leader said in a joint news conference after the meeting.

They agreed to aim for the timely conclusion of an economic partnership agreement, which will serve as a key test of economic cooperation. "An EPA between Japan and the EU will send a symbolic message to the world," Abe told reporters. While negotiations are nearly finished, the two sides remain divided in such areas as agricultural tariffs.

The countries also agreed to lead efforts on creating international standards for the "internet of things." Germany is one of the most influential countries in setting such standards. The deal could also help Japanese corporations make further inroads abroad.

"Chancellor Merkel and I agreed that a free and open global order is the foundation of peace and prosperity," Abe told reporters. Free trade is extremely important for both countries, Merkel said.

Trump was another topic of discussion. As Merkel pointed out in the news conference, the two leaders have different relationships with the U.S. president. Merkel and Trump traded barbs over the refugee crisis and immigration at a recent summit. Abe, on the other hand, is working to build rapport with Trump through such means as playing golf with him. Such efforts may highlight the rift between Europe and the U.S.

Trump does not want to isolate himself and wants fair trade, Merkel said. She pointed out that the G-7 summit in May will be a good opportunity to determine what this means for Germany and Japan. But the outlook is far from clear. Merkel simply said that any unresolved issues could be discussed at the G-20 summit in July and that the important thing is to continue a dialogue.

On security, the duo agreed that the threat from North Korea's continued nuclear and missile development has reached a new level. Cooperation on Pyongyang is necessary, since it poses a threat to Asia and beyond, Merkel said.

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